Can I learn to live without plastic for a whole week?
We eat, breathe and excrete plastic. Our use-and-toss attitudes have consequences
Catherine Cleary with some of her plastic-free purchases. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
There is a muscle memory for opening the lid on a glass milk bottle. You press down with your thumb firmly enough to dimple the foil but gently enough to keep the shape. We’re opening glass milk bottles from Dunlavin Dairy because we are trying to live for a week without buying any single-use plastic. It’s surprisingly challenging. “No Cheestrings?” asks the nine year old. Also fewer sweets, crisps and cereals which may be no bad thing. But they understand the reasons.
A pilot whale on BBC’s Blue Planet was the tipping point for our phenomenal plastic addiction. The mother whale had been swimming through the depths for days holding her dead calf. The baby whale may have died from plastic contaminants in the mother’s milk, David Attenborough told us. It was a stark reminder that our use-and-toss attitudes have consequences.
We live in a world teeming with plastic. We are estimated to generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste in Europe every year, with less than a third of that being recycled. More than 85 per cent of beach litter is made up of plastics, and microplastics have been found in our air, water and (disturbingly) our stools. We are breathing and eating this stuff.
Plastic is everywhere when you start to look. It’s in every corner of our lives, and it takes time and planning to avoid
Plastic is everywhere when you start to look. Literally, in my case. I see the world through disposable plastic when I wear my daily contact lenses. It’s in every corner of our lives, and it takes time and planning to avoid. “It would be so much easier if I lived on my own,” I tell a friend bemoaning the €12 shampoo bar which was washed away in what felt like days. “Everything would be so much easier,” she replies drily.
“Cutting down on your plastic?” the friendly woman in the soap chain Lush asks as I pay for another shampoo bar and a chalky bar of deodorant. “You and everyone else,” she says. Shampoo and deodorant bars have been some of their biggest sellers. They have a cleansing pad made from seaweed as the impulse purchase on the counter. “Take two bottles into the shower?” as the old Wash and Go ad used to ask. We’re moving to a culture where we take no bottles into the shower.
Jars, biodegradable bags and bamboo sporks
The week starts with a trip to the Dublin Food Co-Op in Kilmainham in Dublin which has been selling dry food staples without packaging for several years. Sunday morning is quiet enough to navigate a shopping experience where you pull a lever on a dispenser and fill a bag instead of grabbing a clearly priced package and tossing it in the basket.
At the dispensers, Aileen Gittens says she started to try use less plastic last year after becoming dismayed at having to bin all the soft plastic that could not be recycled. She loves mushrooms and they are almost impossible to find without plastic. “I’m not one to go on Twitter and say ‘Lidl would you sort out your plastic’,” she says. She would prefer to seek out “where they think about this stuff” and somewhere, like the food co-op, that supports local producers.
Today she has brought a large empty jar, which was weighed at the counter and which she’ll fill with quinoa from the dispenser. Her fill up comes to €8, but that’s cheaper than several smaller supermarket bags that she would have had to buy to get the same quantity.
Packaging-free vegetables, tins of coconut milk and jars of peanut butter and pesto will go into our meals this week. A roll of biodegradable dog-poo bags is the final key piece
Grocery shopping has calibrated convenience at every turn, so it takes a bit of thinking to do things differently. The food co-op sells drawstring cotton bags, or you can bring your own containers. My first shop of the week includes a few essentials for a reduced plastic habit. There are Irish-made Lón an Lae paper lunch bags at €3.96 for 50. I mistakenly buy the extra large cotton bags and end up with a near-pillowcase-sized sack of porridge oats for €5.74. This provides enough breakfast for two weeks. Toilet rolls are sold separately here. They’re greyer than our supermarket brand and seem pricier, but actually there’s a lot more paper on each roll, the slimness of the “cheaper” versions is easier to hide when you’re selling them in plastic wrapped multipacks.
They have a bamboo spork for €2.75 to keep as reusable cutlery to go with my keep cup. Packaging-free vegetables, tins of coconut milk, beans and jars of peanut butter and pesto will all go into our meals this week. A roll of biodegradable dog-poo bags, made from corn, is the final essential piece.
We drink a lot of milk although we find that the difficulty of buying cereal without plastic will reduce that milk consumption considerably. Tetra Paks are 75 per cent paper but the rest is plastic. I’ve seen the Dunlavin Dairy milk in glass bottles in Marlowe and Co, our local coffee shop, but they seem very small for our milk-guzzling household.
Dairy farmer Arthur Craigie was inspired by a Yorkshire milk round to start selling milk in bottles. Most are delivered to the doorsteps of the 300 or so people who live near his Co Wicklow dairy farm. The empties are collected, washed and refilled, up to 25 times so his packaging costs work out much cheaper – about a fifth of the cost of a plastic bottle. “Everything tastes better out of glass,” he says. He also packages his milk in plastic bottles and sells a lot of double litre plastic bottles of milk to coffee shops. The glass, however, seems to keep milk colder and we tip it into bowls more carefully because of the smaller bottle. I get into a rhythm with returning the rinsed out bottle on the school run and picking up one or two fresh bottles at a time. The boys enjoy being sent for refills, not least because they sometimes get to buy cookies too. This habit might stick.
As birds often peck the foil, the bottles are delivered in a box with a lid to prevent pilfering from the sky. After years without using chemical fertiliser on his farm, Craigie will be certified organic next month, making Dunlavin Dairy butter from his 35 cow herd one of the only organic Irish butter brands available.
Husband and wife team Ciarán Smyth and Íde Mhic Gabhann have gone into business with Naomi Sheridan in her health-food shop, Noms, in Phibsborough, on Dublin’s northside. They started out selling packaging-free food on a stall in Bushey Park Market. Business has been good in the new shop and they’ve also had a run on their shampoo bars. Their packaging-free food best sellers are pasta, cashews and red lentils. They hope people living further away could set up buyers’ clubs, order in bulk online and collect packaging free supplies from the shop every few months. Even in small amounts, buying without packaging can be the same price or cheaper, Smyth says. Since he started sourcing spices like star anise in larger bags and selling them by weight he can see the steepness of the markup on the much smaller packaged portions.
Navigating restaurants and supermarkets
Of course we don’t eat every mouthful at home and cafes and restaurants have their own tsunami of plastic. In Eathos on Dublin’s Baggot St I order orange juice which arrives on the table in a plastic bottle. They have no problem changing it for a kombucha in a glass bottle.
A midweek supermarket trip for supplies by my husband and sons is fraught. Their favourite after dinner snack of cereal is off the menu as every brand in the supermarket is packaged in single use plastic. The excursion ends in hangry tears solved by a trip to the chipper for a hot paper-wrapped portion of chips and Brennans’ sliced pan, which comes wrapped in waxed paper.
I’ve run out of my favourite face oil. It’s made by Irish company Kinvara and I phone to ask if they can refill the bottle. They ask me to email them my request and then I hear nothing more. A pouch in the post that I could use to refill my pump-dispenser bottle would be a good solution.
Eliminating plastic entirely is difficult but reducing it is beginning to feel increasingly possible
Specsavers say their soft contact lenses are between 38 and 75 per cent water but they advise users not to flush them down the toilet or wash them down the sink. “We are currently reviewing all our recycling programmes and processes and placing a greater focus on plastic use and packaging,” a spokeswoman said when I asked about their packaging. Maybe disposable lenses will come in non-plastic packaging someday. But by the sounds of the email I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, it’s time to start separating the foil lid and packing the plastic containers together to go in the recycling bin. By the end of the week, lens cases are the bulk of our plastic use, the rest is packaging from inside a cardboard boxed Lego set, and the plastic sleeves on dishwasher tablets.
The lessons from our week? Living without plastic takes more time and planning that it does money. Shampoo bars last longer if you let them dry out between uses. January is probably not the best time to road-test a deodorant bar. Cold tapwater from a Chilly’s flask is so much better than stale water from a plastic bottle. Ditching plastic means supporting smaller shops and producers. Eliminating plastic entirely is difficult but reducing it is beginning to feel increasingly possible.